Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fur flies at the Huntington

The happy couple in Venus in Fur.
Playwright David Ives has been adamant that his source material for Venus in Fur, Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch's notorious ode to sado-masochism, is not, not, not pornography.

Which of course only means one thing:

It is pornography.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. And to be fair, Ives' leading lady says as much quite bluntly (and quite often). What she misses, though, is that the original novella (which became so identified with sexual cruelty that its author's name joined de Sade's in its clinical description) does have a genuine literary dimension. No, it's not Lolita; but Venus in Furs (note that final "s") is written in a hauntingly sincere, if breathless, voice - it's hardly hackwork. 

True, its author relentlessly pursues the priapic frissons he insists come only from masochism - slinky, erogenous fur is repeatedly invoked, usually in contrast to the cold sting of the lash. But that only means he's an honest addict (indeed, his heartless dominatrix was widely viewed as a portrait of his own mistress, Fanny Pistor).  What's more, over the transit of Venus, Sacher-Masoch conjures some scenes of almost eerie erotic power (the recurring dream-image of a marble goddess, draped in fur, sneering through stone lips at her abject admirer, is particularly potent).

The novel is also intriguingly vicious - Sacher-Masoch's characters aren't play-acting, and he's honest about the stakes of committed S&M.  Indeed, his deepest theme is the death-wish: his hero, Severin, submits to the destruction of both his social and masculine identity (by the finale he has lost his true name, and is being whipped by men); while his heroine, Wanda, becomes so debauched she openly toys with the idea of murder as the coup de grâce of their affair - even demanding that Severin sign his own suicide note, just in case things go a little too far.

Needless to say, David Ives has thrown all this disturbing material out the window; indeed, he has admitted that his first, accurately-rendered version of Venus struck its readers as a disaster, and so he utterly transformed its tone. Thus while Furs is far from a comedy, Ives' Tony-nominated two-hander (at the Huntington through February 2) could almost count as a farce - and admittedly, a clever one (Ives is a great sketch artist, if perhaps not too much more). And again, not that there's anything wrong with that; Sacher-Masoch was after one commercial audience, Ives is after another.  Still, you can feel the ironically-knowing lady-porn crowd at the Huntington trying to pass itself off (to itself, no less) as being as sophisticatedly decadent as Sacher-Masoch; and I'm sorry, that's just not the case.

In the swing, but not the schwing, in Venus in Fur (Photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Not that I'm much into S&M personally (except in my reviewing, of course!); still, I think I can tell the real thing from play-acting, and this is definitely not the real thing.  It is, instead, "good clean dirty fun," to quote one happily titillated critic. And it is fun - or at least luminous lead actress Andrea Syglowski is so very much fun that she convinces you the whole piece is a hoot.

Director Daniel Goldstein has clearly (and wisely) cast Syglowski for her comic chops - and as Ives has styled Venus as an American screwball comedy with a riding crop, she's in total clover throughout. The playwright's conceit is that we are watching auditions for a stage version of Venus, scripted by Severin-stand-in "Thomas" (Chris Kipiniak).  Enter Syglowski - to a literal thunder clap - as "Vanda," a hapless actress two hours too late for her reading, but hauling a literal (and figurative) bag-of-tricks (including a virginal gown and full bondage gear).

Given this set-up, it helps that Syglowski is an ace at accents, and so can shift at will from "Vanda," a ditzily crass millennial-girl-next-door (think Monica Lewinsky with an MFA), to a genuinely convincing "Wanda," Sacher-Masoch's poised Mittel-European aristocrat (this trick alone powers half the show). Alas, she never actually warms internally to her sadistic tasks, as she should (surprise, surprise, her audition begins to follow the plot of the script she's reading - does that even count as a spoiler?).  But her crack timing, in tandem with Ives' wit, means we hardly care.

And to be honest, she doesn't have all that much to work with in the person of actor Chris Kipiniak.  I actually think Kipiniak is smart - and sexy - but director Goldstein hasn't drawn from him nearly the level of commitment the play's arc requires. Ives' meta-theatrical conceit demands that "Thomas" awaken rapturously to his own taste for pain - the whole point is that he discovers his inner masochist. But Kipiniak remains somehow distant till nearly the finish, and even then he looks more astounded than aroused.  There is one brief scene in which Kipiniak registers the original sting of Furs - and we sense an overdue hint of female evil - when Vanda insists that Thomas betray his fiancée as he unzips her boots. But the moment soon passes; and while Kipiniak unzips the boots, he doesn't kiss them. 

Both members of the cast are also a bit at sea with Ives' conceptual gambits.  The author has it in mind, I think, to echo Sacher-Masoch's "dream Venus" by crafting his own lead as not just a living re-incarnation of the original Wanda, but also as a template for all the power-goddesses of Western culture. The novella's temptress was, in the end, just a flesh-and-blood woman with a taste for kink, but Ives' Vanda is a whole walking, talking symbology (he even drags in The Bacchae before he's through). But this mystical who-are-you-really mumbo-jumbo scrambles the power dynamics of the piece, in terms of its central actress-director relationship as well as other, larger political contexts. And it deep-sixes entirely the poignance of the original (Severin finally realizes that true love is impossible with a dominant partner - which means it's also impossible in the context of nineteenth-century mores). Luckily, despite these gaps, the Huntington still has Syglowski. She not only carries off a twenty-foot mink at the curtain, she carries off the whole show.


  1. I think you're not giving this play due credit. I found it to be an incredibly intelligent piece about the psychopathology of everyday life--the hidden desire of men to be undone by beautiful women; the masochism inherent in the creative process; and the unknowability of human desire.

    Most interesting, I think it explores whether we still have any interest in experiencing the operatic passions of Romanticism in our present feminist age or whether we prefer to dismiss them as sexist nonsense.

    My wife dismisses opera as silly and sexist; I weep uncontrollably. She's right, of course, but I can't help wondering if something very important is being lost or perhaps denied about who we are.

  2. I agree that Ives reaches for big themes. I disagree, however, that he lands any; he certainly gestures wittily in their direction, but that's not quite the same thing (although it IS entertaining, and these days, that counts for a lot). Mr. Ives is very intelligent, yes - but that doesn't mean he's actually a dramatist.

    I likewise think Ives would agree with you (as I'm inclined to do) that men are far more romantic than women, and whether that aspect of their nature can survive feminism is an open question. BUT, again, I wouldn't argue he actually poses that question theatrically.

    As for your wife - she is certainly dead wrong about opera, so go ahead and cry. And find somebody ELSE to go to the opera with.